derive pleasure from


BDSM is a complex acronym derived from the terms bondage and discipline (B&D), dominance and submission (D&S, D/S, or Ds), sadism and masochism (S&M or SM). BDSM includes a wide spectrum of activities and forms of interpersonal relationships. While not always overtly sexual in nature, the activities and relationships within a BDSM context are almost always eroticized by the participants in some fashion. Many of these practices fall outside of commonly held social norms regarding sexuality and human relationships.

Many activities can be found under the umbrella of BDSM, which include — but are not limited to — forms of dominance, submission, discipline, punishment, bondage, sexual roleplaying, sexual fetishism, sadomasochism, and power exchange, as well as the full spectrum of mainstream personal and sexual interactions.

An important distinction is that BDSM is not a form of sexual abuse — although some BDSM activities may appear to be violent or coercive, such activities are conducted with the consent of all partners involved. BDSM relationships and practices are exercised under the philosophy of "safe, sane and consensual" (SSC), or the somewhat more permissive philosophy of "risk-aware consensual kink" (RACK).

Activities and relationships within a BDSM context are characterized by the fact that the participants usually take on complementary, but unequal, roles. Typically, participants who are active – applying the activity or exercising control over others – are known as tops or dominants. Those participants which are recipients of the activities, or who are controlled by their partners, are typically known as bottoms or submissives. Individuals which move between top/dominant roles and bottom/submissive roles – either periodically within a relationship, or from relationship to relationship – are known as switches.

BDSM is often practiced within the context of a limited and defined encounter known as a BDSM scene. Such scenes often have ritualistic aspects, complete with modes of behavior, forms of address, codes of conduct, dress codes, and many other aspects of theater and role playing. As such encounters are often – but not always – at least partly sexual in nature, people outside of BDSM have a tendency to view it as a form of "kinky sex".

Some participants incorporate aspects of BDSM into their everyday relationship(s) with their partner(s), especially those who practice dominance and submission or power exchange (especially Total Power Exchange). For these individuals, BDSM is part of their lifestyle and in some discussions is referred to as "The Lifestyle".


BDSM typically involves one partner voluntarily giving up control. The submissive partner gives control to the dominant partner in a ritualized interaction known as power exchange. The dominant partner is referred to as the "Dom," "Dominant," or "Top" and the submissive partner is called "sub," "submissive," or "Bottom". In accordance with the commonly-used nomenclature in issue-related discussions among the practitioners, this article will use the terms Top and Bottom to describe the particular role-playing partner.

BDSM actions often take place during a specific period of time agreed to by both parties, referred to as "play," "a scene" or "a session." All parties involved usually derive pleasure from this, even though many of the practices that are performed, such as inflicting pain, humiliation or being restrained would be considered unpleasant under normal circumstances. Sexual intercourse, be it oral, anal or vaginal, may occur within a session, but is not essential.

The fundamental principles for the exercise of BDSM require that it should be performed by mature and responsible partners, of their own volition, and in a safe way. Since the 1980s, these basic principles have been condensed into the motto "Safe, sane and consensual", abbreviated as SSC, which means that everything is based on safe, sane and consenting behavior of all involved parties. This mutual consent makes a clear legal and ethical distinction between BDSM and crimes such as sexual assault or domestic violence.

Some BDSM practitioners prefer a code of behavior that differs from "SSC" and described as "Risk Aware Consensual Kink" (RACK), indicating a preference of a style in which the individual responsibility of the involved parties is emphasized more strongly, with each participant being responsible for his or her own well-being. RACK focuses primarily upon awareness and informed consent, rather than accepted safe practices. Consent is the most important criterion here. The consent and compliance for a sadomasochistic situation can be granted only by people who are able to judge the potential results. For their consent, they must have all relevant information at hand and the necessary mental capacity to judge. The resulting consent and understanding is often summarized in a "contract", an agreement of what can and cannot take place.

In general, it must be possible for the consenting partner to withdraw his or her consent at any given time; for example, by using a safeword that was agreed on in advance. Failure to honor a safeword is considered the most serious misconduct that can take place in BDSM and can even change the sexual consent situation into a crime, depending on the relevant law, since the bottom has explicitly revoked his or her consent to any actions which follow the use of the safeword (see Legal status).


Aside from the general advice related to Safer Sex, BDSM sessions often require a much wider array of safety precautions than typical Vanilla Sex (sexual behavior without BDSM elements). To keep all acts within the framework agreed upon by all participants, a commonly accepted set of rules and safety measures has emerged within the BDSM community.

To ensure consensus related to BDSM activity, pre-play negotiations are commonplace, especially among partners who do not know each other very well. These negotiations concern the interests and fantasies of each partner and establish a framework. This kind of discussion is a typical "unique selling proposition" of BDSM sessions and quite commonplace. Additionally, safewords are often arranged to provide for an immediate stop of any activity if any participant should so desire. Quick and reliable response to safewords is an imperative for safe BDSM. In case of voice constraints of the bottom, eye contact or hand signs might be the only means of communication and are therefore of very high importance for safety.

Practical safety aspects are of tremendous importance. It is highly important during bondage sessions to understand which parts of the human body have a risk of damage to nerves and blood vessels by contusion or have a high risk of scar development. Using crops, whips or floggers, the top's fine motor skills and anatomical knowledge can make the difference between a satisfying session for the bottom and a highly unpleasant experience, possibly including severe physical harm. The very broad range of different BDSM "toys" and physical and psychological control techniques often requires a far-reaching knowledge of details related to the requirements of the individual session, such as anatomy, physics, and psychology.

It is necessary to be able to identify a bottom's psychological "freakouts" in advance in order to avoid it. Such losses of emotional balance due to sensory or emotional overload are the most common SM emergency. It is extremely important to follow his or her reactions empathetically and continue or stop accordingly.


The acronym BDSM includes psychological and physiological facets:

  • Bondage & Discipline (B&D)
  • Dominance & Submission (D&S)
  • Sadism & Masochism (or Sadomasochism) (S&M)

This model for differentiating among these three aspects of BDSM is increasingly used in literature today. Nevertheless, it is only an attempt at phenomonological differentiation. Individual tastes and preferences in the area of sexuality may overlap among these areas, which are discussed separately here.


Bondage and Discipline are two aspects of BDSM that do not necessarily relate to one another, but can appear jointly. The term "Bondage" describes the practice of restraining for pleasure. Bondage is usually, but not always, a sexual practice. While bondage is a very popular variation within the larger field of BDSM, it is nevertheless sometimes differentiated from the rest of this field. Studies among BDSM practitioners in the U.S. have shown that about half of all men find the idea of bondage to be erotic; many women do as well. Strictly speaking, bondage means binding the partner by tying their appendages together; for example, by the use of handcuffs or by lashing their arms to an object. Bondage can also be achieved by spreading the appendages and fastening them with chains to a St. Andrews cross or spreader bars.

The term "Discipline" describes the use of rules and punishment to control overt behavior in BDSM. Punishment can be pain caused physically (such as caning), humiliation caused psychologically (such as a public flagellation) or loss of freedom caused physically (eg. chaining the Bottom to the foot of a bed). Another aspect is the structured training of the Bottom. Overlap with practices from the field of bondage can occur, but is not necessarily mandatory. A differentiation between bondage and discipline is sometimes difficult.

Dominance and submission

"Dominance and submission" (also known as D&s, Ds or D/s) is a set of behaviors, customs and rituals relating to the giving and accepting of dominance of one individual over another in an erotic or lifestyle context. It explores the more mental aspect of BDSM. This is also the case in many relationships not considering themselves as sadomasochistic; it is considered to be a part of BDSM if it is practiced cognizantly. The range of its individual characteristics is thereby wide.

Examples of mentally orientated practices are education games, during which the dominant requires certain forms of behavior from the submissive. Special forms include erotic roleplay like ageplay, in which a difference in age, either real or enacted, formulates the background; or petplay. Concerted deployed sexual rejection exercised on the partner can be an aspect of Dominance and Submission as well (see cuckoldry). The most established and probably most cliché set form of dominance and submission is dominance and slavedom. These can be administrated for the short duration of a session among otherwise-emancipated partners, but also can be integrated into everyday life indefinitely. In a few relationships, it leads as far as total submission of one partner in the truest sense of the phrase total power exchange. Compensating elements of the total dominance and submission are care and devotion complementing one another, thus facilitating stable relationships. The consensual submission of the sub is sometimes demonstrated to others by symbols indicating his/her belonging to the dom, such as wearing a collar, special tattoos, piercings, a very short haircut or a bald head.

Occasionally, actual "slave contracts" are set out in writing to record the formal consent of the parties to the power exchange, stating their common vision of the relationship dynamic. Such documents have not been recognised as being legally binding. Contracts that are contra bonos mores (contrary to public morals) are generally illegal, and such contracts can even be constitutionally prohibited. In Europe, such agreements may be contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights which grants a general freedom from "unhuman or degrading treatment". This right had been held to be absolute and no limitations or derogations are permitted by the Convention. Nevertheless, the mere existence of such purported contracts has resulted in banner headlines in yellow press publications, and uninformed third parties seeing such information out of context are periodically led to rejecting and condemning the relationships they describe.


The term "Sadomasochism" is derived from the words "Sadism" and "Masochism" (see Etymology). In the context of consensual sexual activities, sadism and masochism are not strictly accurate terms; there is a significant difference from the medical or psychological usage of both terms. Sadomasochism refers to the physical aspects of BDSM. Sadism describes sexual pleasure derived by inflicting pain, degradation, or humiliation on another person. On the other hand, the masochist enjoys being bound, spanked or suffering within the consensual scenario. Sadomasochism does not imply enjoyment through causing or receiving pain in other situations (e.g. accidental injury, medical procedures). Discipline often incorporates sadomasochistic aspects. Sadomasochism is practiced in isolation relatively rarely, although certain practices BDSM can be performed solo, such as self-bondage and autoerotic asphyxia, but such practices can be dangerous resulting injury or death.

Physical aspects

On a physical level, BDSM is partly connected to the intentional infliction of physical pain, suffering and other intense sensations. BDSM practitioners often compare the effects induced by the resulting endorphins to the so-called "runner’s high" or to the afterglow of orgasm. The corresponding trance-like mental state is also known as "subspace" and is regularly described as very comforting. Some use the term "body stress" to describe this physiological sensation. This experience of algolagnia is important, but is not the only motivation for many BDSM practitioners. The philosopher Edmund Burke defines this sensation of pleasure derived from pain by the word sublime. The regions of the brain that manage sexual stimuli and pain overlap, resulting in some individuals associating pain with sexual pleasure as the neurological reactions are intertwined. A minority of BDSM practitioners take part in sessions for which they do not receive any personal gratification. They enter such situations solely with the intention to allow their partners to fulfil their own needs and/or fetishes.

In some BDSM sessions, the Top exposes the Bottom to a wide range of sensual impressions, for example: pinching, biting, scratching with fingernails, spanking or the use of various objects such as crops, whips, liquid wax, icecubes, Wartenberg wheels, erotic electrostimulation or others. Fixation by handcuffs, ropes or chains may be used as well. The repertoire of possible "toys" is limited only by the imagination of both partners. To some extent, everyday items like clothes-pins, wooden spoons or plastic wrap are used as pervertibles. It is commonly considered that a pleasurable BDSM experience during a session is very strongly dependent upon the top's competence and experience and the bottom's physical and mental state at the time of the session. Trust and sexual arousal help the partners enter a shared mindset. Some BDSM practitioners compare related sensations with musical compositions and representation, in which single sensual impressions are the musical notes of the situation. From this point of view, different sensuous impressions are combined to create a total experience leaving a lasting impression.

Relationship models

Play relations

Many BDSM practitioners regard the practice of BDSM in their sex life as sexual roleplaying and therefore speak of "Play" and "Playing". The execution of such play is termed a "Session", and the contents and the circumstances of the play are often referred to as a "Scene". The term "Play relations" is used as well, describing two different aspects:

First, the expression is used in usual emancipated relationships, in which BDSM is part of, or foreplay to, sexual activities. If several relationships with intense emotional connections exist over a longer time, then there can exist an overlap with the practice of polyamory. Second, the term "play relations" can describe relationships which are based exclusively on the occasional conjoint realization of sexual fantasies as a common goal and in which no further relationship exists.

Common role models

Tops and Bottoms

In BDSM terminology the partner who has the active (i.e., controlling) role in a session or in the entire relationship is described as "Top", a role that often involves inflicting pain, degradation or subjection. The partner referred to as "Bottom" or more frequently as Sub, exposes him- or herself voluntarily to those actions during the session and/or is the passive partner in the connection. Although the Top habitually is the dominant and the Bottom the submissive partner, it is not inevitably. In some cases the Top follows instructions, i.e., he "tops" the Bottom according to the Bottom's desires and in a way the Bottom expressly requires. A Top only having apparent control, while he in reality is conforming the instructions given by the Bottom, is labeled Service Top. Contrasting with the Service Top is the Dominant Top, controlling his submissive partner by using physical or psychological techniques during the session or in lifestyle. If desired, the Top can even instruct the submissive partner to exercise temporary control.

A similar distinction also may apply to Bottoms. At one end of the spectrum are those who are indifferent to, or even reject, physical stimulations. At the other end of the range are Bottoms who enjoy physical and psychological stimulations but are not willing to be subordinate to the person who applies these. The Bottom is frequently the partner who specifies the basic conditions of the session and gives instructions, directly or indirectly, in the prelude to the session, while the Top often respects this guidance. Other Bottoms try to control their Top by provoking reactions or "misbehaving" to attract interest. Nevertheless a small, very puristic "school" exists within the BDSM community, which regards such "Topping from the Bottom" as incompatible with the standards of BDSM relations.


Some BDSM practitioners "switch", meaning they play either or both roles, Top or Bottom, depending on the actual session's setting. They may practice this within one specific session or take these different roles in different sessions with the same or different partners. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes a switch lives in a relationship with a partner of the same primary preference (for example, two Tops), so switching represents the only possibility of being able to fulfill all of his or her BDSM needs within the relationship. Some people change roles without regarding themselves as Switches, since they do it only very irregularly or only under certain circumstances.


Contrasting such "play relationships" are relationships in which everyday life is clearly framed by the concept of BDSM even outside of sexual activities. The partners involved maintain in their daily life an appropriate balance of power and accordingly make aspects of BDSM a consistent part of their lifestyle. Here, BDSM cannot be designated a merely sexual phenomenon. The term "24/7 relationship" is derived from 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Another term for such behavior is "D/s", derived from "Dominant/submissive". The dominant partner controls most aspects of the submissive's life. Particular areas of life such as work, family, or friends can be excluded from the D/s relationship and not be placed under control of the dominant partner. Some D/s relationships, however, cover all areas of life; such constellations are designated as a "Total Power Exchange" (TPE). In D/s, and especially in TPE relationships, changes in the balance of power (so-called "Switching") do not take place. TPE relationships probably represent the least common role behavior within the BDSM spectrum.

Professional services

A professional dominatrix or professional dominant, often referred to within the culture as a "pro-domme", offers services encompassing the range of bondage, discipline, and dominance in exchange for money. Many dominatrices do not see themselves as prostitutes, since sexual intercourse between dominatrix and client usually is out of the question. However, in some cases, the sexual gratification or climax of the client may be permitted by other means. The term "Dominatrix" is little-used within the non-professional BDSM scene. A non-professional dominant woman is more commonly referred to as a "Domme" or "Femdom". Dommes may title themselves as "Lady", "Mistress" or "Madame", and require their submissives to address them in this fashion, to emphasize the shift of power. Far more seldom seen are the services of professional female "Slaves". A professional slave brooks her costumer's dominant behavior within negotiated limits.

Scene: subculture and public

Today, the BDSM culture exists in most western countries. This offers BDSM practitioners the opportunity to discuss BDSM relevant topics and problems with like-minded people. This culture is often viewed as a subcultures, mainly because BDSM is often still regarded as "ill", "bizarre" or "perverse" by a large segment of the public and the media. Many people hide their leaning from society since they are afraid of the incomprehension and of social exclusion. It is commonly known in the BDSM culture that there are practitioners living on all continents, but there is no documented evidence for many countries (due to restrictive laws and censorship motivated by politics or religion) except their presence in online BDSM communities and dating sites.

This scene appears particularly on the Internet, in publications, and in meetings such as SM parties, gatherings called munches, and erotic fairs. The annual Folsom Street Fair is the world's largest BDSM event. It has its roots in the gay leather movement. There are also conventions like Living in Leather, TESfest and Black Rose. North American cities that have large BDSM communities include New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Diego, Dallas, Minneapolis, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. European cities with large BDSM communities include London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Munich, Cologne, Hamburg and Rome.


BDSM and fetish movements have spread widely in western societies' everyday life by different factors as avant-garde fashion, Rap, Hip hop, Heavy metal, goth subculture and Science Fiction-TV series, and are often not consciously connected with their BDSM roots by many people. The use of piercings is not scene typical anymore. While it was mainly bound to the Punk and BDSM subcultures in the 1990s, it has spread into wide parts of the western populations today.

The Leather Pride flag is a symbol for the Leather subculture and also widely used within BDSM. In continental Europe the Ring of O is widespread among BDSM practitioners. The Triskelion, while quite common in the Anglo-Saxon communities, is less common in Europe. It has significantly higher degree of "signal impact" than the ring which is also common in Goth subculture and widely sold as jewelry.


Understanding of BDSM culture and practices remains intertwined with prejudices, clichés and stereotypes. Misunderstandings may arise from general lack of knowledge concerning sexuality and sexual practices as well as misconceptions on how one's personal life and public persona can vary greatly. For example, it is sometimes assumed that a submissive would prefer to experience pain and degradation in their everyday life, or conversely, that they would prefer to have exactly the opposite. There is no clear correlation between the position in everyday life and BDSM preferences. A further misunderstanding is that members of BDSM communities want only to be hurt or to inflict physical, psychological and mental pain, which diminishes and disparages the emotional and spiritual relationships that develop.

Another misconception is the idea of women generally being the dominant party in BDSM relationships. Quite often the picture of BDSM is reduced to the idea of crude corporal punishment, neglecting the broad spectrum of behaviors within the culture. Along with the whip-swinging dominatrix, the sadomasochist in full leather regalia is another common cliché. While overlaps between different kinds of fetishism can exist, there is no inevitable connection between BDSM and fetishisms (eg: Latex, pvc or leather). The frequent occurrence of such clothing can be partly explained by its function as a quasi-formalized dress code. The relative openness towards alternative lifestyles results in fetishisms being more substantially lived within the culture of BDSM than in other cultures.

Since the term BDSM covers several different aspects and these occur with varying emphasis, the arising spectrum of individual interests and personalities is large and extremely diverse. Due to the lack of information in the total population and the reluctance with many to come out about matters of an extremely personal nature leads to situations in which actions and statements of individual BDSM practitioners are accredited to the community at large just as the larger LGBT community has been characterized by drag queens and other minority communities similarly mischaracterized.

At least in the western, industrialized countries and Japan, since the 1980s sadomasochists have begun to form information exchange and support groups to counter discriminatory images. This has happened independently in the United States and in several European countries. With the advent of the web, international cooperation has started to develop — for example Datenschlag is a joint effort of sadomasochists in the three major German-speaking countries, and the mailing list Schlagworte uses the model of a news agency to connect six countries. Some credit highly publicized events like Operation Spanner and the International leather contests with fostering international cooperation and collaboration.

Coming out

Some people who feel attracted by the situations usually compiled under the term BDSM reach a point where they decide to come out of the closet. While GLBT people increasingly are coming out publicly, sadomasochists still keep themselves comparatively closeted. Even so, depending upon a survey's participants, about 5 to 25 percent of the US-American population show affinity to the subject. Other than a few artists, practically no celebrities are publicly known as sadomasochists.

Public knowledge of one's BDSM lifestyle can have devastating vocational and social effects (Persona non grata) for sadomasochists. The reason for this is seen by some authors as a mixture of lack of public educational advertising, lurid media coverage and substantial criticism from some feminists; the call by feminist activists for more rigid laws in Switzerland, for example, has threatened the legal status of sadomasochism. Within feminist circles there are two basic positions within the discussion: a sadophobe faction on the one side (see Alice Schwarzer) and a sex-positive on the other (see Samois); both of them can be traced back to the 1970s.

Opponents of BDSM contend that it can lead to domestic violence. There is no scientific evidence for this theory, however. Many feminists have criticized BDSM for eroticizing power and violence, and for reinforcing misogyny. They argue that women who choose to engage in BDSM are making a choice that is ultimately bad for women. Sex-positive feminists argue that consensual BDSM activities are enjoyed by some women and validate the sexual inclinations of these women. They argue that feminists should not attack other women's sexual desires as being "anti-feminist", and that there is no connection between consensual kinky activities and sex crimes. While some radical feminists suggest connections between consensual BDSM scenes and non-consensual rape and sexual assault, sex-positive feminists may tend to find this insulting to women.

It is often mentioned that in BDSM, roles are not fixed to gender, but personal preferences. Several studies on the correlation of BDSM pornography and the violence against women recapitulate that there is no correlation. Japan is a useful example: a country which has the lowest rate of sexual crimes of all industrialized nations while being well known for its comprehensive BDSM- and Bondage pornography (see Pornography in Japan). In 1991 a lateral survey came to the conclusion that between 1964 and 1984, despite the increase in amount and availability of sadomasochistic pornography in the US, Germany, Denmark and Sweden there is no correlation with the national number of rapes to be found.

Operation Spanner in the UK proves that BDSM practitioners still run the risk of being stigmatized as criminals. In 2003, the media coverage of Jack McGeorge showed that simply participating and working in BDSM support groups poses risks to one's job, even in countries where no law restricts it. Here a clear difference can be seen to the situation of homosexuals. The psychological strain appearing in some individual cases is normally neither articulated nor acknowledged in public. Nevertheless it leads to a difficult psychological situation in which the person concerned can be exposed to high levels of emotional stress.

In the stages of "self awareness" , he or she realizes their desires related to BDSM scenarios and/or decides to be open for such. Some authors call this internal coming-out. Two separate surveys on this topic independently came to the conclusion that 58 percent and 67 percent of the sample respectively, had realized their disposition before their nineteenth birthday. Other surveys on this topic show comparable results. Independent of age, coming-out can potentially result in a difficult life crisis, sometimes leading to thoughts or acts of suicide. While homosexuals have created support networks in the last decades, sadomasochistic support networks are just starting to develop in most countries. In German speaking countries they are only moderately more developed. The internet is the prime contact point for support groups today, allowing for local and international networking. In the US Kink Aware Professionals (KAP) a privately funded, non-profit service provides the community with referrals to psychotherapeutic, medical, and legal professionals who are knowledgeable about and sensitive to the BDSM, fetish, and leather community. In the USA and the UK, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation & Federation, National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) and Sexual Freedom Coalition (SFC) have emerged to represent the interests of sadomasochists. The German Bundesvereinigung Sadomasochismus e.V. is committed to the same aim of providing information and driving press relations. In 1996 the website and mailing list Datenschlag went online in German and English providing the largest bibliography, as well as one of the most extensive historical collections of sources related to BDSM.

Parties and clubs

BDSM parties are events on which BDSM practitioners and other similarly interested people meet in order to communicate, share experiences and knowledge, and to "play" in an erotic atmosphere. The parties show similarities with ones in the dark culture, being based on a more or less strictly enforced dress code; most often frivolous clothing made of latex, leather or lacquer (vinyl, PVC), latex, lycra etc., emphasizing the body's shape and the primary and secondary sexual characteristic. The requirement for such dress codes differ. While some events have none, others have a policy in order to create a more coherent atmosphere and to prevent voyeurs from taking part.

At these parties, BDSM can be publicly performed on a stage, or more privately in separate "dungeons". Sexual intercourse stands is usually not the center of the activities. A reason for the relatively fast spread of this kind of event is the opportunity to use a wide range of "playing equipment", which in most apartments or houses is unavailable. Slings, St. Andrews crosses (or similar restraining constructs), spanking benches, and punishing supports or cages are often made available. The problem of noise disturbance is also lessened at these events, while in the home setting many BDSM activities can be limited by this factor. In addition, such parties offer both exhibitionists and voyeurs a forum to indulge their inclinations without social approbation. In order to ensure the maximum safety and comfort for the participants certain standards of behavior have evolved, these include aspects of courtesy, privacy, respect and safewords among others. Today, BDSM parties are taking place in most of the larger cities in the western world.

In some cities there are specialized BDSM clubs with a more or less structured program schedule, in which theme parties alternate with topic-free "play evenings", similar to the business concepts of more conventional nightclubs. Social control of these parties and/or in the clubs is far higher than in a normal discotheque. Consensuality in the public BDSM sessions is strictly enforced. Apart from commercial events there are also privately organized or only moderately profit-oriented parties, which are organized by BDSM groups and individuals. Minors are not allowed at parties or clubs.



BDSM is practiced in all social strata and is common in both heterosexual and homosexual men and women in varied occurrences and intensities. The spectrum ranges from couples with no connections to the subculture in their homes, without any awareness of the concept of BDSM, playing "tie-me-up-games", to public scenes on St. Andrew's crosses at large events, for example the Folsom Fairs in several American and European cities. The percentage of women is significant higher than that of most behavior patterns formally considered to be paraphilias. Estimation on the overall percentage of BDSM related sexual behavior in the general population range from 5 to 25 percent, depending on the scientific objectives.

A non-representative survey on the sexual behavior of American students published in 1997 and based on questionnaires had a response rate of about 8,9%. It results showed 15% of openly homosexual males, 21% of openly lesbian and female bisexual students, 11% of heterosexual male and 9% of female heterosexual students committed to BDSM related fantasies. In all groups the level of practical BDSM experiences varied about 6%. Within the group of openly female bisexuals and lesbians the quote was significantly higher, at 21%. Independent of their sexual orientation, about 12% of all questioned students, 16% of the outed female lesbians and bisexuals and 8% of the male heterosexuals articulated an interest in spanking. Experience with this sexual behavior was indicated by 30% of male heterosexuals, 33% of female bisexuals and lesbians, and 24% of the male gay and bisexual men and female heterosexual women. Even if this study were not considered representative, other surveys indicate similar dimensions in a differing target groups.

In a representative study published in 1999 by the German Institut für rationale Psychologie, about two thirds of the interviewed women stated a desire to be at the mercy of their sexual partners from time to time. 69% admitted to fantasies dealing with sexual submissiveness, 42% stated interest in explicit BDSM techniques, 25% in bondage. A 1976 study in the general U.S. population suggests three percent have had positive experiences with Bondage or master-slave role playing. Overall 12% of the interviewed females and 18% of the males were willing to try it. A 1990 Kinsey Institute report stated that 5% to 10% of Americans occasionally engage in sexual activities related to BDSM. 11% of men and 17% of women reported trying bondage. Some elements of BDSM have been popularized through increased media coverage since the middle 1990s. Thus both black leather clothing, sexual jewellery such as chains and dominance role play appear increasingly outside of BDSM contexts.

According to a 2005 survey of 317.000 people in 41 countries, about 20% of the surveyed people have at least once used masks, blindfolds or other bondage utilities, and 5% explicitly connected themselves with sadomasochism. In 2004, 19% mentioned spanking as one of their practices and 22% confirmed the use of blindfolds and/or handcuffs. Some BDSM accessories, like the Ring of O, have been integrated into the jewelry collections of internationally well known designers like Calvin Klein.

Psychological categorization

In the past many activities and fantasies related to BDSM were generally attributed to sadism or masochism and were regarded by psychiatrists as pathologic. Following the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) sadomasochism is categorized a "Disorder of sexual preference" (F65.5) and described as follows: "A preference for sexual activity which involves the infliction of pain or humiliation, or bondage. If the subject prefers to be the recipient of such stimulation this is called masochism; if the provider, sadism. Often an individual obtains sexual excitement from both sadistic and masochistic activities."

With the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) in 1994 new criteria of diagnosis were available describing BDSM clearly not as disorders of sexual preferences. They are now not regarded as illnesses in and of themselves. The DSM-IV asserts that "The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors" must "cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning" in order for sexual sadism or masochism to be considered a disorder. The manuals' latest edition (DSM-IV-TR) requires that the activity must be the sole means of sexual gratification for a period of six (6) months, and either cause "clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning" or involve a violation of "Consent" to be diagnosed as a paraphilia. Overlays of sexual preference disorders and the practice of BDSM practices can occur, however.

In Europe, an organization called ReviseF65 has worked towards this purpose in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). In 1995 as the first European Union country Denmark has completely removed sadomasochism from its national classification of diseases. Recent surveys on the spread of BDSM fantasies and -practices show strong variations in the range of their results. Nevertheless it can be stated that the vast majority of the researchers assume 5 to 25 percent of the population showing sexual behavior related to joyfully experienced pain or dominance and submission. The population with related fantasies is considered even higher.

There are only a few studies researching the psychological aspects of BDSM using modern scientific standards. A pivotal survey on the subject was published by US-American psychotherapist Charles Moser in 1988 in the Journal of Social Work and Human Sexuality. His conclusion was that while there is a general lack of data on the psychological problems of BDSM practitioners, some fundamental results are obvious. He emphasizes that there is no evidence for the theory that BDSM has common symptoms or any common psychopathology; Clinical literature, though does not give a consistent picture of BDSM practitioners. Moser emphasizes that there is no evidence at all supporting the theory of BDSM practitioners having any special psychiatric problems or even problems based solely on their preferences.

Problems do sometimes occur in the area of self classification by the person concerned. During the phase of the "coming-out", self questioning related to one's own "normality" is quite common. According to Moser, the discovery of BDSM preferences can result in fear of the current non-BDSM relationship's destruction. This, combined with the fear of discrimination in everyday life, leads in some cases to a double life which can be highly burdensome. At the same time, the denial of BDSM preferences can induce stress and dissatisfaction with one's own "vanilla"-lifestyle, feeding the apprehension of finding no partner. Moser states that BDSM practitioners having problems finding BDSM partners would probably have problems in finding a non-BDSM partner as well. The wish to remove BDSM preferences is another possible reason for psychological problems since it is not possible in most cases. Finally, the scientist states that BDSM practitioners seldom commit violent crimes. From his point of view, crimes of BDSM practitioners usually have no connection with the BDSM components existing in their life. Moser's study comes to the conclusion that there is no scientific evidence, which could give reason to refuse members of this group work- or safety certificates, adoption possibilities, custody or other social rights or privileges. The Swiss psychoanalyst Fritz Morgenthaler shares a similar perspective in his book, Homosexuality, Heterosexuality, Perversion (1988). He states that possible problems result not necessarily from the non-normative behavior, but in most cases primarily from the real or feared reactions of the social environment towards the own preferences. In 1940 psychoanalyst Theodor Reik reached implicitly the same conclusion in his standard work Aus Leiden Freuden. Masochismus und Gesellschaft.



The historical origins of BDSM are obscure. During the ninth century BC, ritual flagellations were performed in Artemis Orthia, one of the most important religious areas of ancient Sparta, where the Cult of Orthia, a preolympic religion, was practiced. Here ritual flagellation called diamastigosis took place on a regular basis. One of the oldest graphical proofs of sadomasochistic activities is found in an Etruscan burial site in Tarquinia. Inside the Tomba della Fustigazione (Flogging grave), in the latter sixth century b.c., two men are portrayed flagellating a woman with a cane and a hand during an erotic situation. Another reference related to flagellation is to be found in the sixth book of the Satires of the ancient Roman Poet Juvenal (1st - second century ad), further reference can be found in The Satyricon of Petronius where a delinquent is whipped for sexual arousal. Anecdotal narratives related to humans who have had themselves voluntary bound, flagellated or whipped as a substitute for sex or as part of foreplay reach back to the third and fourth century.

The Kama Sutra describes four different kinds of hitting during lovemaking, the allowed regions of the human body to target and different kinds of joyful "cries of pain" practiced by bottoms. The collection of historic texts related to sensuous experiences explicitly emphasizes that impact play, biting and pinching during sexual activities should only be performed consensually since some women do not consider such behavior to be joyful. From this perspective the Kama Sutra can be considered as one of the first written resources dealing with sadomasochistic activities and safety rules. Further texts with sadomasochistic connotation appear worldwide during the following centuries on a regular basis.

There are anecdotal reports of people willingly being bound or whipped, as a prelude to or substitute for sex, during the fourteenth century. The medieval phenomenon of courtly love in all of its slavish devotion and ambivalence has been suggested by some writers to be a precursor of BDSM. Some sources claim that BDSM as a distinct form of sexual behavior originated at the beginning of the eighteenth century when Western civilization began medically and legally categorizing sexual behavior (see Etymology). There are reports of brothels specializing in flagellation as early as 1769, and John Cleland's novel Fanny Hill, published in 1749, mentions a flagellation scene. Other sources give a broader definition, citing BDSM-like behavior in earlier times and other cultures, such as the medieval flagellates and the physical ordeal rituals of some Native American societies.

Although the names of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch are attached to the terms sadism and masochism respectively, Sade's way of life does not meet modern BDSM standards of informed consent. BDSM ideas and imagery have existed on the fringes of Western culture throughout the twentieth century. Robert Bienvenu attributes the origins of modern BDSM to three sources, which he names as "European Fetish" (from 1928), "American Fetish" (from 1934), and "Gay Leather" (from 1950). Another source are the sexual games played in brothels, which go back into the nineteenth century if not earlier. Irving Klaw, during the 1950s and 1960s, produced some of the first commercial film and photography with a BDSM theme (most notably with Bettie Page) and published comics by the now-iconic bondage artists John Willie and Eric Stanton.

Stanton's model Bettie Page became at the same time one of the first successful models in the area of fetish photography and one of the most famous pin-up girls of American mainstream culture. Italian author and designer Guido Crepax was deeply influenced by him, coining the style and development of European adult comics in the second half of the twentieth century. The artists Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe are the most prominent examples of the increasing use of BDSM-related motives in modern photography and the public discussions still resulting from this.

Leather movement

Much of the BDSM ethos can be traced back to the gay male leather culture, which formalized itself out of the group of men who were soldiers returning home after World War II (1939-1945). This subculture is epitomized by the Leatherman's Handbook by Larry Townsend, published in 1972, which essentially defined what was later called the "Old Guard leather" culture. This code emphasized strict formality and fixed roles (i.e. no switching), and did not include lesbian women or heterosexuals. In 1981, however, the publication of Coming to Power by lesbian-feminist group Samois led to a greater knowledge and acceptance of BDSM in the lesbian community. They got into conflict with fundamentalist part of the feminist movement which considers BDSM to be the base of misogyny and violent porn.

Today the Leather Movement is generally seen as a part of the BDSM-culture instead as a development deriving from gay subculture, even if a huge part of the BDSM-subculture was gay in the past. In the 1990s the so called New Guard leather subculture evolved as a reaction to the Old Guard's restrictions. This new orientation embraced switching and started to integrate psychological aspects into their play and to diminish the old rigid distinction of roles and the exclusion of heterosexuals and women which was widely considered a basic principle of the Old Guard.


In the mid-nineties, the Internet provided a way of finding people with specialized interests around the world as well as on a local level, and communicating with them anonymously.This brought about an explosion of interest and knowledge of BDSM, particularly on the usenet group When that group became too cluttered with spam, the focus moved to soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm

In addition to traditional "brick and mortar" sex shops, which sell sex paraphernalia, there has also been an explosive growth of online adult toy companies that specialize in leather/latex gear and BDSM toys. Once a very niche market, there are now very few sex toy companies that do not offer some sort of BDSM or fetish gear in their catalog. Kinky elements seem to have worked their way into "vanilla" markets. The former niche expanded to an important pillar of the business with adult accessories. Today practically all suppliers of sex toys do offer items which originally found usage in the BDSM subculture. Padded handcuffs, latex- and leather garments, as well as more exotic items like soft whips for fondling and TENS for erotic electro stimulation can be found in catalog aiming on classical vanilla target groups, indicating that former boundaries increasingly seem to shift.

During the last years the Internet also provides a central platform for networking among individuals who are interested in the subject. Besides countless private and commercial choices there is an increasing number of local networks and support groups emerging. These groups often offer comprehensive background and health related information for people who have been unwillingly outed as well as contact lists with information on psychologists, physicians and lawyers who are familiar with BDSM related topics.


The terms "Sadism" and "Masochism" are derived from the names of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, based on the content of the authors' works. In 1843 the Hungarian physician Heinrich Kaan published Psychopathia sexualis ("Psychopathy of Sex"), a writing in which he converts the sin conceptions of Christianity into medical diagnoses. With his work the originally theological terms "perversion", "aberration" and "deviation" became part of the scientific terminology for the first time. The German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft Ebing introduced the terms "Sadism" and "Masochism" into the medical terminology in his work Neue Forschungen auf dem Gebiet der Psychopathia sexualis ("New research in the area of Psychopathy of Sex") in 1890.

In 1905 Sigmund Freud described "Sadism" and "Masochism" in his Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie ("Three papers on Sexualtheory") as diseases developing from an incorrect development of the child psyche and laid the groundwork for the scientific perspective on the subject in the following decades. This lead to the first time use of the compound term Sado-Masochism (German "Sado-Masochismus")) by the Viennese Psychoanalytic Isidor Isaak Sadger in its work Über den sado-masochistischen Komplex ("Regarding the sadomasochistic complex") in 1913.

In the past BDSM activists turned repeatedly against these conceptual models, originally deriving from singular historical figures and implying a clear pathological connotation. They argued that there is no common sense in attributing a phenomenon as complex as BDSM to two individual humans, as well one might speak of "Leonardism" instead of Homosexuality. The BDSM scene tried to distinguish themselves with the expression "B&D" for bondage and discipline from the sometimes pejorative connotations of the term "S&M". The abbreviation BDSM itself was probably coined in the early 1990s in the subculture connected with the Usenet newsgroup The earliest posting with the term which is now preserved in Google Groups dates from June 1991. Later the dominance and submission dimension was integrated into the connotation of BDSM, creating the multilevel acronym common today.

Legal status

It is entirely dependent on the legal situation in individual countries whether the practice of BDSM has any criminal relevance or legal consequences. Criminalization of consensually implemented BDSM practices is usually not with explicit reference to BDSM, but results from the fact that such behavior as spanking or cuffing someone could be considered a breach of personal rights, which in principle constitutes a criminal offense. In Germany, The Netherlands, Japan and Scandinavia, such behavior is legal in principle. In Austria the legal status is not clear, while in Switzerland some BDSM practices can be considered criminal. Spectacular incidents like the US-American scandal of People v. Jovanovic and the British Operation Spanner demonstrate the degree to which difficult grey areas can pose a problem for the individuals and authorities involved.


The practice of BDSM is not generally penalized in Germany if it is conducted with the mutual consent of the partners involved.

The following sections of the criminal code may be relevant in certain instances for BDSM practices:

In order to fulfill the charge of coercion, the use of violence or the threat of a "severe mistreatment" must involve an endangerment to life and limb. In cases where the continued application of the treatment could be ended through the use of a safeword, neither coercion nor sexual coercion may be charged. In the case of charges of sexual abuse of people incapable of resistance, similar principles apply. In this case, taking advantage of a person's inability to resist in order to perform sexual acts on that person is considered punishable. The potential use of the safeword is considered to be sufficient possibility for resistance, since this would lead to the cessation of the act, and so a true inability to resist is not considered to be in effect. The charge of insult (slander) can only be prosecuted if the defamed person chooses to press charges, according to §194. False imprisonment can be charged if the victim--when applying an objective view--can be considered to be impaired in his or her rights of free movement.

According to §228 of the German criminal code, a person inflicting a bodily injury on another person with that person's permission violates the law only in cases in which the deed can be considered to have violated good morals in spite of permission having been given. On 26 May 2004, the Criminal Panel #2 of the Bundesgerichtshof (German Federal Court) ruled that sado-masochistically motivated physical injuries are not per se indecent and thus subject to §228. Still, this ruling makes the question of indecency dependent on the degree to which the bodily injury might be likely to impair the health of the receiving party. According to the BGH, the line of indecency is definitively crossed when "under an objectively prescient consideration of all relevant circumstances the party granting consent could be brought into concrete danger of death by the act of bodily injury." In its ruling, the court overturned a verdict by the Provincial Court of Kassel, according to which a man who had choked his partner and thereby involuntarily strangled her, had been sentenced to probation for negligent manslaughter. The court had rejected a conviction on charges of bodily injury leading to death on the grounds that the victim had, in its opinion, consented to the act. Following cases in which sado-masochistic practices had been repeatedly used as pressure tactics against former partners in custody cases, the Appeals Court of Hamm ruled in February of 2006 that sexual inclinations toward sado-masochism are no indication of a lack of capabilities for successful childraising.

United Kingdom

British law does not recognize the possibility of consenting to bodily injury. Such acts are illegal, even between consenting adults, and these laws are enforced. This leads to the situation that, while Great Britain and especially London are world centers of the closely-related fetish scene, there are only very private events for the BDSM scene which are in no way comparable to the German "Play party" scene.

Following Operation Spanner the European Court of Human Rights ruled in January 1999 in Laskey, Jaggard and Brown v. United Kingdom that no violation of Article 8 occurred because the amount of physical or psychological harm that the law allows between any two people, even consenting adults, is to be determined by the State the individuals live in, as it is the State's responsibility to balance the concerns of public health and well-being with the amount of control a State should be allowed to exercise over its citizens. In the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007, the British Government cited the Spanner case as justification for criminalizing images of consensual acts, as part of its proposed criminalization of possession of "extreme pornography".


For Italian law, BDSM is right on the border between crime and legality, and everything lies in the interpretation of the Code by the judge. This concept is that anyone willingly causing "injury" to another person is to be punished. In this context, though, "injury" is legally defined as "anything causing a condition of illness", and "illness" is ill-defined itself in two different legal ways. The first is "any anatomical or functional alteration of the organism" (thus technically including little scratches and bruises too); The second is "a significant worsening of a previous condition relevant to organic and relational processes, requiring any kind of therapy". This makes somewhat risky to play with someone, as later the "victim" might call for foul play using any sort of little mark as evidence against the partner. Also, any injury requiring over 20 days of medical care must be denounced by the professional medic who discovers it, leading to automatic indictment of the person who caused it. BDSM play between nonconsenting adults or minors or in public is of course punished according to "normal" laws.


§90 of the criminal code declares bodily injury (§§ 83, 84) or the endangerment of physical security (§89) to not be subject to penalty in cases in which the "victim" has consented and the injury or endangerment does not offend moral sensibilities. Case law from the Austrian Supreme Court has consistently shown that bodily injury is only offensive to moral sensibilities (and thus punishable) when a "serious injury" (meaning a damage to health or an employment disability lasting more than 24 days) or the "death" of the "victim" results. A light injury is considered generally permissible when the "victim" has consented to it. In cases of threats to bodily well-being, the standard depends on the probability that an injury will actually occur. If serious injury or even death would be a likely result of a threat being carried out, then even the threat itself is considered punishable.


The age of consent in Switzerland is 16 years, which also applies for BDSM play. Children (i.e. those under 16) are not subject to punishment for BDSM play as long as the age difference between them is less than three years. Certain practices, however, require granting consent to light injuries and thus are only allowed for those over 18. Since Articles 135 and 197 of the Swiss Criminal Code were tightened, on 1 April 2002, ownership of "objects or demonstrations [...] which depict sexual acts with violent content" is punishable. This law amounts to a general criminalization of sado-masochists, since nearly every sado-masochist will have some kind of media which fulfill these criteria. Critics also object to the wording of the law, which puts sado-masochists in the same category as pedophiles and pederasts.

See also


Further reading

  • Guy Baldwin. Ties That Bind: SM/Leather/Fetish Erotic Style- Issues, Communication, and Advice, Daedalus Publishing, 1993. ISBN 1-881943-09-7.
  • Pat Califia. Sensuous Magic. New York, Masquerade Books, 1993. ISBN 1-56333-131-4
  • Saez, Fernando y Viñuales, Olga, Armarios de Cuero, Ed. Bellaterra, 2007. ISBN 84-7290-345-6
  • Gloria G. Brame, William D. Brame, and Jon Jacobs. Different Loving: An Exploration of the World of Sexual Dominance and Submission Villard Books, New York, 1993. ISBN 0-679-40873-8
  • Anita Phillips. A Defence of Masochism, Faber and Faber, New edition 1999. ISBN 0571196977
  • Gloria G. Brame. Come Hither: A Commonsense Guide To Kinky Sex, Fireside, 2000. ISBN 0-684-85462-7.
  • William A. Henkin, Sybil Holiday. Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely, Daedalus Publishing, 1996. ISBN 1-881943-12-7.
  • Jack Rinella. The Complete Slave: Creating and Living an Erotic Dominant/submissive Lifestyle, Daedalus Publishing, 2002. ISBN 1-881943-13-5.
  • Dollie Llama. Diary of an S&M Romance., PEEP! Press (CA), 2006, ISBN 0-9705392-5-8
  • Janus, Samuel S., and Janus, Cynthia L. . The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior, John Wiley & Sons, 1994. ISBN 0471016144

External links

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